When I hopped on the bus to join 22 DC SCORES summer camp participants for a trip to the Washington Spirit game, I wasn't sure what to expect.
Sure, kids usually enjoy field trips. Or at least the thought of them.
But this wasn't D.C. United. None of the youth from our Marie Reed and Bancroft soccer and arts camps had ever been to a women's professional game at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
And what would the boys think about sitting down to watch a women's game? How would they compare it to their experiences in D.C. taking in United games or, even better, recently watching the Brazil and Spain men's nationals teams on TV?
Would their favorite part about the trip be the game or the funnel cake?
Those were my thoughts, my concerns, as we inched through D.C. traffic around 5:45pm Wednesday. Three hours later, the elementary and middle school students were having the times of their lives. Yes, there was funnel cake. But they were absorbing the game, too, and loving everything about it.
Standing by the railing above the field, I was surrounded by a horde of boys who all wanted to speak about what they were watching on the field below. Here's a sampling of what they said, transcribed right from my tape recorder:
"It's like special that we get to see girls instead of boys. And like we don't get to see them a lot."
"An opportunity for me to come here is that I've never come to a soccer game and it's awesome that I get to come where girls are playing, and it's just a great experience for me."
"I think it's awesome because we get to see girls play, and this is a big opportunity for DC SCORES and we do not want to mess it up."
"I think this is awesome because we get to see professional women playing, and it's like we don't see them a lot and we learn from them."
Before the game, all the players were foreign to the youth. But thanks to the Spirit, the kids got the opportunity to watch warmups on the field and then escort the Spirit's starters onto the field. The kids bubbled with anticipation as they waited for their "partners." And after their moment in the spotlight and they had returned to the stands, they serenaded the players with cheers.
"Go, Stephanie, you rock!!" one kid said about forward Stephanie Ochs.
When goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made a diving save of an early penalty kick, the group -- all standing along the railing -- let out a large, collective cheer.
Another kid exclaimed, pointing toward Spirit star Ali Krieger, "Hey, you, you were my partner!"
The game was also a learning experience. As we sat watching warmups in the grass, Kyle, a rising sixth-grader who played three DC SCORES years at Marie Reed, pointed to the referees and asked me why they needed to do calisthenics like the players before the game.
Later, during the first half, Justin asked me about the offside rule and how it applied in the women's game. A moment later, another student exclaimed of a close no-call, "That should have been offsides!"
Clearly, I realized, the youth have been learning a lot about all the soccer nuances during their daily soccer sessions at camp.
The biggest takeaway, though, was a simple one -- to be the best, you must use teamwork. After watching Chicago star Adriana Leon use a brilliant bicycle kick to set up a teammate for a goal, a few of the fellas around me answered the question, "What was the biggest thing you learned tonight?"
"The biggest thing is that they work as a team and that's something that we should all do and think about when we play soccer, and it's impressive how they can work together like that."
"The biggest thing I learned from watching this game is they they pass a lot and they can work together to make a goal. Not just one person thinks that they can do all the goals and be the best, but they work together."
Herb, a Bancroft camper, recognized that even though the Spirit lost, it was just a game.
"I think I learned today about they really tried their best today," he said. "But it doesn't matter about winning and losing. It just matters about having fun and just having a great summer."
While the Spirit failed to score a goal and dropped the game, none of the youth cared. But it wasn't because they weren't watching -- as good as the funnel cake tasted. More importantly, the youth realized that they were watching great talent on the field and learned to appreciate the players during the course of one game.
Women's sports are under-appreciated by many in society, but all it took was 90 minutes for 22 DC SCORES youth -- boys and girls -- to become big fans of the sport and learn their partners' names.
"It was awesome" Justin said. Then he added about Chicago's Leon: "My girl scored!"